Rhode Island Senate: Don’t Be Fooled- The Bull’s-Eye Is Still on Lincoln Chafee

by Stuart Rothenberg July 26, 2006 · 12:02 AM EDT

While most of the nation’s attention is focused on the Democratic Senate primary in Connecticut and the future of Sen. Joe Lieberman (D), the political career of Rhode Island Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee is no less in doubt.

Not everyone accepts this assessment. Some continue to believe that Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey isn’t a serious threat to Chafee in the Sept. 12 primary. They see Laffey as a volcano ready to blow, an unstable, transparently ambitious politician who’s run a mediocre campaign so far.

Chafee recently won the state GOP endorsement — Laffey, knowing he couldn’t win, announced right before the state convention that he wasn’t seeking the endorsement — and the Senator and his allies, including the National Republican Senatorial Committee, have been carrying the fight to the Cranston mayor.

The NRSC has battered Laffey on the airwaves and in print, portraying him as ethically challenged and unelectable. Most recently, the committee has charged Laffey with distributing a campaign mailing at taxpayer expense.

Yet despite the hits Laffey has taken recently, I remain convinced that he has a very real chance of knocking off Chafee.

No, I didn’t say he will win. Right now, I’m not certain who will win the primary. Chafee has some considerable advantages, but the fundamentals of the race, including Chafee’s liberalism and the normal ideological dynamic in a GOP primary, suggest that Laffey is no worse than even money to beat the Senator.

Recent public polling has shown the race as tight. Other polling, in which I have greater confidence, also shows the race within the margin of error, but with Laffey ahead. Where is the contest now? It all depends on the sample and the screen, which is merely another way of saying that it depends on the assumptions used by the pollster.

Republican observers with very different preferences in the race agree that Laffey leads among registered Republicans. Chafee’s chances of overtaking the challenger depend on a strong showing among unaffiliated voters, which includes securing both a big turnout among them and a big win among those unaffiliateds who do turn out.

Because of that, the April 27 withdrawal of Secretary of State Matt Brown from the Democratic Senate primary was great news for Chafee. Unaffiliated voters now essentially have no reason to participate in the Democratic primary.

Chafee’s campaign already has been widely credited for convincing thousands of Democrats — possibly as many as 13,500 — to re-register as unaffiliated voters, a maneuver that allows them to vote in the GOP primary. And if that were the case, Chafee likely would beat Laffey, since fewer than 50,000 voters may participate in the September Republican primary. (The biggest Republican primary turnout in the state was 45,000 voters, in the 1994 gubernatorial primary.)

But the reality seems to be a bit different.

A number of Republicans with detailed knowledge of the race told me that the changed registration figures generally reflect “normal changes” rather than evidence of Chafee’s success in re-registering Democrats.

So what happened? This spring, for the first time in 23 years, the Rhode Island secretary of state’s office sent a version of the state’s voter registration cards to registered voters in an effort to “clean up” voter rolls. Not surprisingly, some Democrats and Republicans switched to unaffiliated, and some unaffiliated voters switched to one of the major parties.

“I’m sure [Chafee’s campaign] made some efforts in this regard and probably had some success. But it’s nowhere near the case that those 13,500 new unaffiliateds are Chafee primary voters. Most of the 13,500 occurred because of the natural cleanup process, and they are no more likely to vote in the [Republican] primary than other unaffiliated voters,” said one Laffey supporter.

Perhaps surprisingly, a Republican who is pulling for Chafee had a similar perspective, telling me that most of the changes in registration weren’t generated by Chafee’s effort. “The Chafee campaign did bump up the number of switchers [from Democrat to unaffiliated], but the lion’s share of those changes were routine,” the GOP source said.

But how could 13,596 Democrats switching to unaffiliated be “routine”? Why would they have switched except to vote for Chafee in the primary? Unfortunately, I’ll have to offer a few more numbers to explain why Chafee has received too much credit for the switches.

While most of the focus has been on Democrats switching registration to unaffiliated, a total of 3,768 Republicans also switched to unaffiliated. We don’t know why they switched, but nobody is suggesting that they did so to vote in the Democratic primary or because of an orchestrated effort to get them to switch. I suppose that means their switches were “routine” — they simply no longer wanted to identify with the GOP.

Interestingly, the 3,768 Republicans who switched to unaffiliated constituted 5.3 percent of the roughly 71,000 registered Republicans in the state at the June 13 deadline for switching party registration. The 13,596 Democrats who switched to unaffiliated constituted 5.4 percent of the roughly 250,000 Democrats.

In other words, there is little statistical difference between the proportion of Republicans and Democrats who switched to unaffiliated; they switched at the same rate. Given that, it hardly seems logical to read the switches from Democratic to unaffiliated as a dramatic development that will be a huge advantage to Chafee.

Since more than half of Rhode Island’s 660,000 registered voters are unaffiliated, they constitute a large potential voter pool for both Republican primary candidates. The key constituency is more likely to be the voters who were registered as unaffiliated before the new registration figures were released, rather than the relative handful who switched because Laffey or Chafee asked them to do so.